'Chapel of Love' in Town Hall: Mayor Elwell takes on his other duty: marrying people
On Tuesday, March 7, after the Town Hall officially closed at 4 p.m., Mayor Dennis Elwell remained in his office to attend to a task he'd never done as a councilman. While he'd had heard talk about the power of his office, this was not a duty that had first leapt to his mind when he was running. Yet Elwell, perhaps even as nervous as the couple who waited outside, donned his black robe and picked up his Bible, calling the couple in to get married. Viraj "Rocky" Bhutani of Secaucus and his bride, Yasmin, had thought about marriage for several years before making arrangements for the mayor to perform the ceremony. "We didn't plan for it to be Mayor Elwell's first wedding ceremony," Rocky said. "We just happened to want to do it now and went to the mayor to have him perform it. I knew it was his first, but we just wanted to get married." Rocky, a businessman, bought a house two years ago and thought it a good time to get married. Elwell, who has since performed several more ceremonies with numerous others now mounting on his already business mayoral schedule, said that while performing his first wedding ceremony was special, it also got him to thinking about the issue, and how it fit into a concept he had been working out in his head for years. "[Former mayor] Paul Amico performed about 500 in 28 years," Elwell said. "[Former mayor Anthony] Just did some. I don't know how many. I know since that first one, I've had many requests, and if it keeps up at that pace, I'll surpass them both." Wedding requests have come in so that he finds himself doing them back to back on Saturday and even Sunday. "I tried to shy away from weekends, but when else can I find the time?" he said. While anyone from any town can request the mayor to perform a marriage ceremony, all those who have requested so far have been local people. "I know there has been one woman from France," Elwell said. "But she's been living in Harmon Cove." Elwell, who dresses up in his robes for the ritual, says he uses Council Chambers Two on the second floor. "You might call say we have a chapel of love right here in Town Hall," Elwell said with a laugh. While he could perform the ceremony in his office the way former Mayor Just did, Elwell never knows how many people will show up. "While one couple only came with two other people," he said, "the last one I did brought 20 people and had someone video recording the whole thing." The start of something big
Elwell asked around last month about wedding ceremony procedures. He discovered that mayors can charge as much as $75 for the service or do it for nothing, can keep the money or donate it to charity. (State statute lets mayors keep the money for personal use because they perform the ceremony on their own time.) "I know Mayor [Nicolas] Sacco does about 400 marriages a year," Elwell said. "He has set up a trust fund to send his kids through college. Mayor Amico, I'm told, donated the money to charity. Mayor Just did all he did for free." Although Elwell did his first few weddings for free, he had a slightly different idea for the rest. While he envisioned the money as going to charity, he wanted to incorporate this aspect of his mayoral duties with another movement he wanted to start up in the town. "When people want to me to marry them, I'll ask them to make out a $50 check," he said. "I'll have a list of charities to which the money will go. They won't make the check out to me, but to the charity." In one case the charity might be the March of Dimes; in another, it might be the Leukemia society. The giving is part of a larger concept that incorporates the entire town, from corporate leaders to business people, into part of something the mayor has called "Team Elwell." He hopes to create an atmosphere of community-based giving. "We're looking for corporate sponsorship for a five or ten kilometer run," he said. "We didn't start the marathon, but Team Elwell has taken it over. Last year, the run raised more than $8,000 for charity." At the end of April, the March of Dimes will hold its annual Walkathon in Secaucus, and Team Elwell has already made plans, incorporating the efforts of the Office of Emergency Management, which will set up a water station. "We've already ordered t-shirts for the event," Elwell said. "One woman donated $250 to have a name put on the sleeve. I'm paying for most of shirts as well as donating to the march of dimes. Each participant will get a shirt." Building community spirit
What Elwell wants to do is help shape a community that makes a difference in the world, where businesses and civic leaders, private citizens and public officials join together in a common effort to shape a humane sense of what Secaucus is all about. "A good and progressive town expands upon what it does," Elwell said. "That is my reason for setting up a Cultural Affairs Committee, to provide the community with a space where people can hear book readings and poetry and other kids of shows. We have plans for putting on concerts in Buchmuller Park over the summer. Yet raising money for charity is part of being a well-rounded in community. It unites the entire community, residents and commercial sector in a common cause. That's what I'm trying to accomplish and I think others will jump on the band wagon." Elwell said people come to him all the time asking for favors. It's one of the things that comes with the job as mayor. "This is a way for those people and others to repay the community by doing something good," he said. "I think this is my role, and if I leave a legacy, this will be it."